The province has extended the timeline on caribou recovery consultations in the Peace Region by four weeks, and tapped Dawson Creek Coun. Blair Lekstrom to act as a community liaison during the process, Premier John Horgan announced Monday.
Consultations on two draft agreements with the federal government and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations have been extended to May 31. Lekstrom will report directly to Horgan as he works with local political and business leaders, as well as local residents on the agreements, required by federal legislation.
At a press conference at the regional district board office, Horgan said he wants to "dial down the acrimony" that has resulted from the current process, acknowledging the "significant" 35,000-signature petition tabled by Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier in the legislature last week.
“It will give us an opportunity in Victoria to look at the feedback from the community in a more focused way,” Horgan said.
Horgan said he was concerned to see a region of the province known for working co-operatively coming to a confrontation over caribou recovery efforts. But, he also said he regretted that public consultations didn’t start sooner.
The province has an obligation to work nation-to-nation with West Moberly and Saulteau, which have foregone hunting caribou to help preserve herd populations and have operated a successful penning project over the last five years, Horgan said.
Horgan said the extra four weeks was enough time to get the agreements where they need to be, though he acknowledged many won’t agree.
“I believe we need to come together in the region, we need to come together in the province and come up with a land-use plan that protects job, protects caribou, and also protects the constitutional rights of indigenous people,” Horgan said. “Blair’s well-suited to help us in that regard.”
Lekstrom is a former mayor of Dawson Creek and former cabinet minister for previous BC Liberal governments. He's tasked with giving input into the economic impact analysis of the agreements — there are fears of up to 500 job losses and a mill closure in Chetwynd — and will advise Horgan and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson on how the province can meet its caribou recovery obligations while protecting jobs and balancing the region's economic needs.
After the press conference, Lekstrom noted he was approached by Horgan to work on the file after raising his concerns.
Lekstrom acknowledged his longstanding friendship with Horgan, and said his goal will be to balance the need to recover caribou populations as mandated by federal law with the needs of local industry.
"It's an interesting thing: I don't sit with his government, I sat with the BC Liberals," Lekstrom said.
"But at the end of the day, this is not about politics in my mind. This transcends any political party. We have families and jobs that could be on the line. I believe we can accomplish looking after the caribou, working with our First Nation communities, and still maintain the jobs and industry in the area in a way that moves caribou recovery forward.
"I've got a lot of work ahead of me, but I'm going to do it," he said.
Southern mountain caribou in the region have been listed as a threatened wildlife species under the federal Species At Risk Act since 2003.
Last year, the federal government declared the species to be under imminent threat of recovery, starting a year-long timeline to put a recovery strategy in place.
B.C. has drafted a partnership agreement with the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations that proposes a series of moratoriums on resource development, and continuing support for a maternal penning program as well as an ongoing wolf cull.
It's also drafted an agreement under Section 11 of the federal Species At Risk Act with Ottawa that outlines "broad recovery actions" and gives the province access to federal funding to support those efforts.
Horgan met with the regional district board — made up of elected officials from across the Peace Region — as well as West Moberly Chief Roland Willson and Saulteau Chief Ken Cameron on Monday.
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